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University Taps Dark Fiber for Online Academics, Healthcare

Everything is big in Texas--including networking challenges. Texas Tech University Health Sciences Center has to provide quality network service to five regional university campuses and almost two dozen healthcare centers across the state. At the same time, it has to meet the diverse needs of its users while balancing regulatory requirements.

Originally anchored on T1 circuits, The Texas Tech University Health Sciences network began as a modest WAN with 150Mbit throughput. Today, it has a 1Gbit WAN with LANs on its campuses that run 10Gbits of throughput. The network supports 22,000 patients, 10,000 users, 200 departments within the university, facilities in 60 different buildings, and 23 healthcare clinics throughout the state of Texas.

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When designing the new network, Dr. Chip Shaw, VP of IT and CIO at Texas Tech University Health Sciences, had to bear in mind the dual--and diverse--needs of both academia and healthcare.

"The academic campuses wanted to leverage the expertise of professors throughout the system through online education that the network would transport--and they needed to do this in a fairly open security environment," said Shaw. "With healthcare, many of our medical schools worked with different teaching hospitals and EMRs [electronic medical records]. There was a need to collaborate and to integrate all of this information from diverse sources in a secure environment that met HIPPA security standards."

The Push for Online Education

The academic online education initiative would require videoconferencing, a technology that Health Sciences has used going back 15 years. When designing the new network, however, Shaw and his team were looking to implement a state-of-the-art system.

The goal from the academic side was to enable students to be able to take advantage of the professorial talent at the university, no matter where the students--or the professors--were located. "For example, there is a professor in Amarillo who also teaches on our other campuses--and also other professors on other campuses that teach students through the Texas Tech system," said Shaw. "An online videoconference delivered over the network can be attended by any student, regardless of location."

The installation of high-definition videoconferencing required a move away from T1 circuits to 264-bit standard IP. When issues arose with the new IP network, Health Sciences was able to pinpoint the cause of the problem using Network Instruments' Observer network management system.

"We immediately noticed issues with our new IP network," said Shaw. "We were able to uncover these issues with the QoS we had begun to implement."

The QoS tools tagged every communications packet. This gave Health Sciences IT the ability to actually look inside each packet to find the problems, which were eventually traced back to a codec. "This ability to drill down into suspect packets...assisted us with our goal of presenting quality videoconferencing for our online classes, since the quality of videoconferencing is directly related to the number of packets in network communications that don't get dropped," said Shaw.

Healthcare Integration

On the healthcare side of the network, there were also major challenges because different schools of medicine, teaching hospitals and EMRs had to be integrated.

"There were seven different EMRs alone," said Shaw. "Some of these EMRs were software residing at the hospitals, while others were cloud-based. We recognized quickly that we were going to need a highly reliable network that could work all of these systems and offer full redundancy. This led to our decision to move into a high-speed ring-architecture network with superior redundancy and availability."

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The ring architecture network project began in 2011, and today it is about 50% complete.

"We spent the first year getting the network from Lubbock into our learning infrastructure," said Shaw. "Once this was in place, we began implementing the new network at the regional campuses. Part of the phasing of this project has also been dependent upon existing contracts that we have with communications providers that are still in force."

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